FKAA: More BOCC?money, more gravity

By Steve Estes

A sizable contingent of Lower Keys residents appeared before the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Board last week to protest the installation of low-pressure grinder pump wastewater systems on private property as part of the now $170 million Cudjoe Regional system instead of building all gravity pipes.

After nearly a half hour of discussion by the residents on why grinder pumps weren’t the answer for wastewater collection in the service area from Lower Sugarloaf to Big Pine Key, the board tossed the issue right back at the Monroe Board of County Commissioners, as FKAA has done throughout the process.

Board Chairman Bob Dean said that the FKAA would prefer to use gravity everywhere feasible, but that construction funding is controlled by the BOCC.

“If they (BOCC) give us more money, we’ll be happy to do it (install gravity),” said Dean.

Monroe County is the funding entity for the initial construction of the Cudjoe Regional system while FKAA is the general contractor during construction and provides the long-term operations and maintenance of the system.

It is those long-term costs of operations and maintenance, as well as the perception from the residents that the grinder pump systems are inferior to gravity, that form the basis for most of the arguments against the pumps.

According to Kevin Wilson, Monroe County Engineer, the protests concerning grinders are based more on perception than actual system designs.

“The Cudjoe Regional system has a very robust design that will work,” said Wilson.

About four months ago, residents in the Cudjoe Gardens area protested the use of grinder pumps and eventually got the BOCC to change its mind and allocate more money for construction in that area, as well as several Big Pine Key areas where housing density was higher than normal.

Now it is residents from the remaining areas that are protesting the use of grinder pumps. They dislike the need to have the pumps installed on private property, instead asking that they be placed in the right-of-way along the street like gravity lines are being installed. The residents claim that will negate the need for individual homeowners to install an extra electrical circuit to furnish power to the pumps as the power could be drawn from the street poles, and would also negate the need for homeowners to give up a utility easement to allow FKAA contractors and crew to access the pumps for repair and maintenance.

Of course, all properties with a potable water connection to FKAA already have some easement on the property for the installation of the water meter. Most properties also have a utility easement for Keys Energy Services so that meters can be read for electrical power.

Putting pumps in the rights-of-way isn’t really feasible for the Cudjoe Regional system, says Josh Peele, FKAA easement coordinator.

“Installation of individual grinder pumps in the road rights-of-way requires more robust (and costly) lift station pumps, and is not in the collection system design,” said Peele.

Peele also said that placing grinder pumps in the rights-of-way would change the permitting requirements for the system and overall make it more costly.

Not everyone slated for grinder pumps has joined the protests.

Peele said that of the grinder pumps easement notices that have been sent out to date, about 50 percent have already been returned allowing FKAA the necessary easements.

He said that some of those that were returned early on have since been converted from grinder to gravity by a decision of the BOCC.

The deadline for easement approval for Big Pine Key Region One North, one area where no conversions have yet been approved by the county commission, passed Dec. 15. But those aren’t hard and fast deadlines, says Peele.

“The deadlines for easement acquisition were phased. Some aren’t yet here, and those areas where conversions have been made haven’t received the requests yet,” said Peele. “We actually have very few people calling to say that we can’t have an easement.”

Some of the more vocal critics of the grinder pump installations have said they will not grant an easement to FKAA to use private property for the pump installations.

If FKAA can’t get an easment, “We are willing to work with the property owner to resolve concerns,” said Peele.

But the final compliance for upgrading wastewater in the Keys does reside with the property owner, and not the county.

According to the state statute governing sewering of the Keys, the county has the authority to meet the mandate by the means it chooses, but the responsibility ultimately rests with the property owner to hook into whatever system is decided upon for the individual property.

Enforcement of the statute will eventually fall to Monroe County and the Florida Department of Health, as it has for other systems throughout the county. Those properties in other areas that failed to hook into the pipes in the street have been sent through the county code enforcement process in the past.

“If the property winds up with a grinder when it’s all said and done, the property owner needs to take advantage of the subsidy provided by the county,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “If FKAA can’t get an easement, the property owner will be responsible for putting in their own pumps and laterals to the street and then maintaining those systems on their own. Right now, grinder pump properties receive a subsidy in that FKAA is covering the cost of installing the pumps, purchasing the equipment, running laterals from the pump to the street, and providing maintenance on the system from the pump to the street in perpetuity.”

Some residents have voiced concerns that FKAA will back out of the maintenance of the grinder pumps if the utility finds that ongoing costs are too high similar to the action taken by the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District regarding grinder ump installations recently.

Key Largo is an independent district with the responsibility to provide advanced wastewater treatment for the Key Largo and now Islamorada areas. Where the county will own the Cudjoe Regional system forever, with a current 99 year contract with FKAA for operations and maintenance, Key Largo is both owner and operator. Key Largo’s independently elected board of directors made the decision to only provide maintenance on the grinder pumps until the end of the manufacturers warranty right now, although that decision could change by a vote of the board in the future.

There is a chance that more neighborhoods could be converted from grinder pumps to gravity January 31 when the BOCC holds a special meeting to take up that specific issue.

Commissioners tried to make those decisions in December, but were told by Wilson that the estimates provided to FKAA by the contractors were not accurate, and staff for the county and FKAA needed more time to make sure that the commissioners had good numbers upon which to base decisions.


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